China is like the proverbial Indian elephant as ‘seen’ by five blind men. What you don’t see is what you get.

When you don’t acknowledge China’s stupendous achievements, what you find is a country that has little to show and still far to go. When you don’t see the political foundations of economic policies that freed the vast majority of dirt poor and backward Chinese from awesome feudal inequalities, it is taken to be the success of capitalist impulses alone.

Naturally then, you don’t see 90 as a venerable age of renewal, but as a stage of decline, if not decay. In China, unlike in ‘modern’ India, age commands respect for its experience and knowledge, from which it derives authority and power.

Thus, it is party time in China. At 90, the Communist Party of China (CPC) is in fine fettle with more reasons to celebrate than regret. The CPC is secretive about its membership, estimated to be 80 million. Every year, over 20 million, mostly students, apply to join the party; less than 3 million make the cut.

The party is a big draw, and has come a long way since July 1, 1921 when 13 men, including Mao Zedong, founded the underground unit of 50. It is the 20th century’s most successful communist party with a “capital” outcome: the world’s second largest economy with $ 3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and turbo-charged growth over two decades unrivalled by ‘superior’ economies. Once scorned by the world, today’s China is courted for its economic clout and rapid recovery from the global meltdown which has left advanced capitalist countries in a funk.


Paradoxically, the 90th ‘communist’ anniversary is also the 10th ‘capitalist’ anniversary of China joining the World Trade Organisation. Perhaps, no other country celebrates a capitalist and communist landmark at the same time. Similarly, China’s emergence in such a short span as a stable and prosperous world power, capable of feeding its 1.3 billion, is without precedent in history.

Like the blind men and the elephant, aversion to Mao and his politico-military achievements make many idolise Deng Xiaoping for China’s economic miracle. Such ideological blindness fails to see politics as the driving force of economic development. It was only on the political foundations laid by Mao that Deng could unleash the processes of reform. And, the reform followed China’s opening up to the U.S. under Great Helmsman Mao (not chess master Deng), who took the then unthinkable leap of paving the way for dramatic policy changes.

This churning in the CPC delivered a long-term positive outcome. However, there were twists and turns of a different kind, such as land reforms, the colossal failure to cope with famine, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and ‘governmentalising’ of the party’s nationalist and revolutionary credentials. Over the decades, the CPC has had more than its share of factional wars and self-destructive tendencies. Having overcome these, celebrated the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2009 and arrived in its 10th decade, the CPC is a different creature.

Today, the CPC has become a techno-corporate bureaucracy, bereft of ideological flavour. The last thing this revolutionary party wants is another revolution. It is a party of the middle class, the professional classes and the salariat. The party is no longer the custodian of the interests of the poor, the marginalised, the rural masses and the millions of migrant labour.


At 90, the CPC represents a lesser percentage of people than it did 30 or 60 years ago. It is more a vehicle of the aspirations of educated and better-off urbanites. Membership is sought after, not to serve the public cause, but to advance career and business interests.

Such a condition can recoil on the party in unforeseen ways. There have been hundreds of thousands of “incidents” – minor riots, social upheavals, demonstrations and protests – across China in recent years. 2010 alone there were 180,000 incidents, exposing the seething discontent of the underclass, of those uprooted or passed over by development. They represent the dark underside of China’s growth: income disparity, joblessness, displaced populations, corruption, criminality, environmental degradation, ghettos of extreme poverty, social sickness, and restive minorities in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions.

These black holes can erupt any time unless the CPC hastens with political reform towards an inclusive socio-economic order where the benefits of growth extend to incrementally larger sections. The party can ignore this only at its peril, especially as the CPC readies for a change of guard in 2012 and 2013 when President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao would step down.

By Shastri Ramachandaran*

*This article first appeared in Sakal, India’s Marathi daily, on July 13, 2011. The writer is a former Editor of Sunday Mail and has worked with leading newspapers in India and abroad. He was Senior Editor and Writer with China Daily and Global Times in Beijing. For nearly 20 years before that he was a senior editor with The Times of India and The Tribune. Besides commentaries on foreign affairs and politics, he has written books, monographs, reports and papers. He is co-editor of the book State of Nepal.